The best books about Saudi Arabia

1 authors have picked their favorite books about Saudi Arabia and why they recommend each book.

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Blood and Oil

By Bradley Hope, Justin Scheck,

Book cover of Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman's Ruthless Quest for Global Power

Another post-Khashoggi product, by two Wall Street Journal reporters, this volume is longer than Hubbard’s but doesn’t get as close to what may make MbS tick. Their reporting’s strength though is chronicling the initial steps of MbS’s Vision 2030 plan to transform the kingdom, and the background to his pet project – the $500 billion futuristic city of NEOM in the northwest of the kingdom.

They write: “Mohammed decided to build not just a city but a mini-kingdom. It would have cutting-edge technology and medical care, all powered by solar energy rather than oil.” The vision statement for the project reads: “The land of the future, where the greatest minds and best talents are empowered to embody pioneering ideas and exceed boundaries in a world inspired by imagination.”


Who am I?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Son King

By Madawi Al-Rasheed,

Book cover of The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia

London-based Professor Al-Rasheed combines the objectivity of an academic with years of criticism of the House of Saud, and her consequent life in exile. One assumes the title is an allusion to Louis XIV of France who ruled for 72 years. A tougher read than the journalistic flows of the other books listed here, it is nevertheless very solid and perceptive.

Who am I?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

America's Kingdom

By Robert Vitalis,

Book cover of America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier

Vitalis' meticulously researched volume is about Saudi Arabia and the United States. In lucid prose, he makes the controversial case that American oil prospectors in the 20th century recreated the patterns of domination that dominated the exploitation of resources in the American West in Saudi Arabia. The argument smashes long-held truths and myths about the origins of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.


Who am I?

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy. 


I wrote...

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

By Steven A. Cook,

Book cover of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

What is my book about?

The Struggle for Egypt is a sweeping political history of Egypt that takes readers from the crystallization of Egyptian nationalism in the late 19th century up to the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The book underscores that Egypt was never as stable as commonly assumed and that the demonstrations that shook Egypt a decade were consistent with a long history during which Egyptians rebelled against their leaders. This accessible text, written from a "close to the ground" perspective, provides invaluable insight into the Middle East's largest and most influential country. It is for history buffs, policy geeks, and Middle East obsessives.

Cities of Salt

By Abdelrahman Munif,

Book cover of Cities of Salt

I love novels that view the world through the eyes of cultures that are different from my own. In Cities of Salt, we see the arrival of US oil companies in the Middle East through the eyes of one of the oasis communities that lived there, in relative peace and isolation, before the oil wells were drilled. The narrative traces how men and women’s lives are first interrupted, and then disrupted, confounded, and corrupted by the oil industry and the vast sums of money it generated. The novel is the first of a trilogy, set in a kingdom that is never named. The fact that Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004) was an oil economist, deprived of his citizenship of Saudi Arabia and driven into exile for his political views, gives us a big clue about which country he was thinking of.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by how power and money work, and hopeful that we can change the world for the better by subverting both. In the 1990s, when I started travelling to, and writing about, Russia, I became aware of how completely oil and gas completely dominated Russia’s economy, its power structures, and its people’s lives. I learned about how oil, gas, power, and money relate to each other, and for 14 years (2007-2021) wrote about those interconnections as a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. 


I wrote...

Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

By Simon Pirani,

Book cover of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

What is my book about?

Coal, gas, and oil have been the main fuels used by society since the industrial revolution. But more have been burned in the last 50 years than in the rest of history. Most alarming of all, fossil fuel consumption has grown fastest in the last three decades, since scientists confirmed that it is the main cause of potentially devastating global warming.

Burning Up traces fossil fuels’ relentless rise since the mid-twentieth century. It dispels explanations that focus on individual consumption, and shows that fossil fuels are consumed through technological, social, and economic systems – and that all these systems must change. This is a history book that speaks to the climate crisis, the greatest crisis of our time.

Goat Days

By Benyamin,

Book cover of Goat Days

In early 2016 I stayed in Kochi, Kerala, in the south of India, working on a novel. There I came across the local bestseller Goat Days by the Bharein-based Indian author, Benyamin, and was totally blown away. It's a powerful tale of a young Indian worker named Najeeb Muhammad, who, like many of his countrymen, goes to work in Saudi Arabia, dreaming of earning some money for his family back home. His dream turns into a nightmare when he is taken as a slave to a remote desert farm where he has to take care of the goats and dwell among them. He is forced to live alone in the desert with all its hardships, sandstorms, heat, and general dryness, treated like an animal by his Saudi master. Still, hope prevails. This is one of the ultimate "me-against-the-world" books. Its strength is underlined by the fact that it's banned in…

Who am I?

Hallgrimur Helgason is an Icelandic artist and writer born in Reykjavik in 1959. He started out as a painter but then also took up writing. Since 1990 he has published eleven novels, the most well-known being 101 Reykjavik, which was turned into a popular film, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, and The Woman at 1000°. Helgason has also published 4 books of poetry and is an active political columnist. His books have been translated into 14 languages and three of them have been nominated for the Nordic Prize of Literature. Helgason won the Icelandic Literature Prize three times. In 2020 he was awarded the French medal Officier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres.


I wrote...

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

By Hallgrímur Helgason,

Book cover of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

What is my book about?

A comic thriller of mistaken identities. A master of violence is forced to hide in the most peaceful country on the planet, that also happens to be its most egalitarian society — a good challenge to his ideas about women.

Toxic is a professional hitman for the Croatian Mafia in New York. One day he is forced to flee the States, but at JFK he spots the FBI waiting for him at the gate. He turns and hides in the men's room, contemplating his moves, when out from one of the stalls comes another bald guy. Being a pro, Toxic kills the bald man, takes on his clothes, ID, passport, and air ticket. So the Croatian hitman arrives in Reykjavik, disguised as a TV preacher. 

MBS

By Ben Hubbard,

Book cover of MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

The assiduous New York Times reporter digs deeply into the persona of the Saudi crown prince, and is rewarded with many anecdotes. Unsurprisingly, most are anonymous. A revealing one is: “One foreign official recalled that the prince’s leg never stopped bouncing during their meeting, making him wonder if the prince was nervous or on some sort of stimulant.”

Who am I?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Inside the Kingdom

By Robert Lacey,

Book cover of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

Better known these days for his writing on the palace dramas of the British royal family and being the historical adviser to the Netflix series The Crown, Lacey previously wrote the 1981 doorstopper The Kingdom: The History of Saudi Arabia to 1979. That was the year of the seizure by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca as well as the Iranian (Shia) revolution.

This latest volume, published in 2009, looks at Saudi Arabia and the transition which was already taking place before the current King Salman took the throne and before anybody had heard of MbS.


Who am I?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Eleventh Day

By Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan,

Book cover of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11

With this year’s 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, this book, published on the 10th anniversary, is a useful reminder of the events of that day and the subsequent investigations of why it happened.

The civil case against Saudi Arabia for alleged complicity with the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi, continues, albeit with little publicity. That is likely to change. Osama bin Laden’s own legal reckoning was less formal of course – the Saudi whose name has become synonymous with terrorism died in a hail of bullets from U.S. Navy SEALs. (I can also recommend the movie of that event Zero Dark Thirty.)


Who am I?

British by birth, American by naturalization, Simon Henderson started in journalism as a trainee at the BBC before becoming its correspondent in Pakistan. Joining the Financial Times a year later, he was promptly sent to Iran to cover the 1979 Islamic revolution and went back again for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. He now analyzes the Gulf states, energy, and the nuclear programs of Iran and Pakistan as the Baker fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


I wrote...

After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

By Simon Henderson,

Book cover of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia

What is my book about?

I have written about the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – for nearly 30 years. My first in-depth study was After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia. I followed this up in 2009 with After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia. My latest study, A Fifty-Year Reign? MBS and the Future of Saudi Arabia published in 2019, examines the circumstances by which Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may, or may not, become king.

Whatever happens the kingdom is changing, with social liberalization, a less central role for the Islamic religious hierarchy, and attempts to move the economy away from its dependence on oil. But MbS is an autocrat with a streak of ruthlessness, as illustrated by the detention and torture of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The End of October

By Lawrence Wright,

Book cover of The End of October

This book is about a pandemic. It was published in April 2020, just when Covid-19 was causing worldwide lockdowns. But Wright finished the book well before the outbreak was discovered. What prescience! And it is so meticulously researched (he’s an investigative journalist for The New Yorker). The major character is an epidemiologist at the CDC who witnesses the spread of a virulent virus in Mecca and spends the rest of the novel looking for an antidote. His account of the devastating effects of the pandemic involves bioweapons, cyber warfare, and an apocalyptic finale. It made me grateful that Covid-19 did not turn out to be as destructive as Wright’s imaginary virus.

Who am I?

I spent the first half of my life in England and the second half in the United States, or more specifically in Venice, California, a unique and unusual community. While working for London University I made several research trips to the US. Eventually, I immigrated to the States, where I taught at several universities in Southern California. Once I stopped teaching full-time, I surprised myself by writing two suspense novels (a genre I had spent most of my life analyzing), Money Matters and Dangerous Conjectures. The second novel was written during the pandemic and takes place during the early rise of the virus.


I wrote...

Dangerous Conjectures

By Brian Finney,

Book cover of Dangerous Conjectures

What is my book about?

Oakland, California, 2020. Computer scientist Adam cannot understand the widespread appeal of conspiracy theories popularized by the president. He decides to investigate one, QAnon, which turns out to have hidden connections to the White House intent on subverting the upcoming presidential election. His wife Julia, who works at the ACLU, is terrified by the outbreak of the coronavirus and is drawn to the fake online cures Adam detests. Further threatened by the reappearance of a violent ex-boyfriend, Julia sees her life unraveling and resorts to desperate remedies. Dangerous Conjectures is a powerful, gripping exploration of the inner lives of two Americans living through a pandemic and a culture overrun with misinformation.

The Oil Kings

By Andrew Scott Cooper,

Book cover of The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East

A highly readable tome, Cooper’s account of how the oil politics of the 1970s revolutionized U.S. foreign policy and the Persian Gulf is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the political landscape of the Middle East. Cooper traces the personal interactions among the Shah of Iran, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and the House of Saud in the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the consequent oil embargo, the formation of OPEC, and the early stirrings of revolution in Iran. Perhaps most helpful, this book dispels many misperceptions about Iran under the Shah while also showing how the United States played an integral role in weakening his regime prior to the 1979 revolution.


Who am I?

I'm a Communication professor at Fresno Pacific University and former Fulbright grantee to Jordan. Growing up in west Texas I was always fascinated with other countries. I encountered Arabic in college, and I quickly fell in love with a language and society that reminded me so much of my home—in fact, the word “haboob” is used by Texas farmers and Bedouin herders alike to describe a violent dust storm. While I was teaching English in Amman, I realized how much I enjoy learning how different cultures come to understand one another. My driving passion is to explore the centuries-long rhetorical history tying Americans and Middle Easterners together in mutual webs of (mis)representation, and this topic has never been more relevant than today.


I wrote...

More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

By Randall Fowler,

Book cover of More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

What is my book about?

Nowadays, the Middle East can seem a quite complicated place. Between ISIS and Iran, Arabs and Israelis, Kurds and Turks, Yazidis and Druze, not to mention oil, Islam, terrorism, Judaism, and Christianity, the issues and conflicts that divide the region often appear bewildering to the average American—much less the ever-changing question of what U.S. foreign policy should be in the region.

My book cuts through those issues to directly explain the origins of American intervention in the Middle East during the Cold War. I use the lens of presidential rhetoric to trace the arguments, fears, and actions that drove U.S. policymakers to get involved in this important region in the first place. I show that many of the anxieties commentators currently voice about the Arab Muslim world are rather similar to the worries felt by Eisenhower and his team. My book demonstrates how major events like the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower Doctrine, coup in Iran, and the 1958 marine landing in Lebanon are still quite relevant to us today. 

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